Erin Go Bragh!

So, the Priest came to the house. They were fearful that he would be too late but he made it. The babe had been born in the night and was fading quickly away. She was not expected to make it through the day. Can you christen an infant and give the last rites all at once? He christened her Sara and made a side note in his book that the parents, Miles McSweeney and Ellen Scollard were, in fact, married. Little Sara made it through the day and the next night. She hung on for the next day and picked up some color. The first week was touch and go but things looked a little better by then. Sara had a older sister, Mary, who was eight…old enough to help her mother. The two older brothers, Edward and Michael, were three and seven and into everything. Another baby, Miles, had died at nine months. There were others in the cemetery and more to come.

bridgetThe McSweeney’s lived in Kerry Patch, an Irish ‘ghetto’ on the north side of St. Louis clustered around St. Bridget of Erin, the Roman Catholic parish church. The place was known for two things, mostly: Irish gangs and tuberculosis. It was an unhealthy place; no wonder the babies died. But the McSweeney children had the benefit of grandparents….it was a growing and shrinking extended family that sometimes all lived under one roof.

Ellen McSweeney, the matriarch, ran a small grocery store left to her by her sainted husband, Edmund, who had died of pneumonia back in 1869. Both she and Edmund came over from Ireland but met and married in St. Louis at St. Francis Xavier…the university church, don’t you know.  Ellen had been a Moran up until the time she married and she liked spelling “McSweeney” as “MacSweeney” — there was a little money there, somewhere.  Her son, Miles, was the only surviving child…the others succumbed to the smallpox epidemic in 1870, just a few months after their father. Ellen was a strong willed woman and protective — nothing bad was going to happen to her son, Miles, who she called Jerry on occasion.

The Scollards, Michael and Mary, came to St. Louis from Tralee in Kerry in 1876. They were married in Kerry and Mary was born a Moran…probable kin to Ellen McSweeney. They came with three mostly grown children, Ellen, Jeremiah and Thomas. They left another three – older and with families of their own – back in Tralee. Thomas was the youngest but he could work. Jeremiah had a trade…he was a blacksmith. Michael, the father was a day laborer at 70 and died in 1881. Thomas followed him in 1887, both buried in the same unmarked grave in Calvary Cemetery. They were in good company and not far from Father DeSmet and Dred Scott. General Sherman and Kate Chopin would soon be there too, and still later (for the love of God!) Tennessee Williams. There were other Scollards there as well. Tuberculosis was the family affliction.

Baby Sara came to be known as Sadie and Sadie she stayed. There was another brother, Myles, born in 1892 to the delight of six year old Sadie. The father, Miles, was unpredictable and unreliable and a mother’s boy. Some years he lived separately with his mother while the rest lived at the grocery store. He had a “thing” for his cousin, Nellie Moran, who worked as a housekeeper for the old lady. Sometimes Miles would go to New York City for a while and then come back.

The family – Ellen and her five children – lived on in Kerry Patch. Ellen developed a cough and grew weaker, finally dying in 1894. Miles was nowhere to be found. Mary, the eldest girl, was sixteen and took on the parenting role as best she could. Eventually little Sadie, now eight, went to a convent but her older brothers would liberate her every time and so then she went to a orphanage in Little Falls, New York.  Why New York? I guess the father, Miles, had a hand in that decision…and it was too far for the brothers to stage a rescue.  She later was in a Methodist Orphanage outside Chicago. The two children were separated…young Myles ended up in St. Joseph’s Male Orphan Asylum  by 1900.

Years passed. The two older brothers became minor gang members in Eagan’s Rats who were always at war with The Hogans. Edward served time in the workhouse but later married and tried to become semi-respectable by becoming a constable in Mike Kinney’s magistrate court. Politics and Irish gangs were closely related. It didn’t last long as he died at age 26 “after a lingering illness”. (Mike Kinney went on to become the longest serving state senator in Missouri history). Brother Michael never married and was sometimes the only one arrested when the other gang members got away. He would make a court appearance in Judge Kinney’s court. Michael died at 27 of the family affliction and shares a grave with Edward at Calvary Cemetery.

Sadie and the kids

Sadie was back in St. Louis around the time of the World’s Fair in 1904 and worked as a house maid, Downton Abbey style, in the great homes of the rich and famous. Being an “Irish” maid came naturally. St. Louis was the fourth largest city in the country at the time and there were opportunities for domestic servants. Two years later she met a man, Charles Miller, who was a shoe worker in one of the many shoe factories in town. He was a strong union man – they boarded a trolley car and made an excursion to the little town of St. Charles, across the Missouri River, and were married on Labor Day of 1906. He got her away from Kerry Patch and mostly away from domestic work – although she took in washing and ironing when times were tough. His family, in upstate New York, was staunch Protestants and descended from Huguenot stock. The idea of marrying an Irish Catholic was unthinkable. The two of them were left to themselves for the most part and they seemed to thrive on that. They acquired a house on the western edge of St. Louis. Babies arrived, four in all, including my mom in 1910. They all survived.


Grampa on the left

I never met my grandfather as he died on Christmas Eve in 1941. Sadie worked in various hotels as a cook during the 1940s. She had a fiery Irish temper and would quit a job in the morning, walk down the street and be hired at another hotel, quit that job after lunch and go back to the first place and be welcomed with open arms. She later took in ironing at home. I remember she had a huge (to me) ironing steam press with rollers in the dining room of the family house. She died when I was four but I have many memories of her. We lived together in the old house for a few years. My older brother would sneak in and out the upstairs bedroom window….a nine year old with things to do and people to see. She met him one day coming across the roof and nailed the window shut with him on the outside. I recall another day when Senator Kinney came to call. He was a dapper man and they greeted as old Kerry Patch friends. I was under foot and was sent away. Her temper was always there and she would leave home in a snit and no one knew where she went until she would eventually turn up at my aunt’s house and stay for a few days. All would be forgiven and she would be back home again as usual.



Kerry Patch is gone and they are tearing down St. Bridget of Erin church as I write this. Almost nothing is left.


So it’s Erin go Bragh – Ireland Forever – on this St. Patrick’s Day. No time for tears. I will soon raise a glass (a toast to Sadie!) and taste some corned beef and cabbage before this day is out.


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